A working mother has many needs: reliable childcare, flexible employment, an understanding employer and a supportive partner.
One area often left unaddressed is support for women – both professional and personal – who face all-new challenges as they re-enter the workforce as parents. While men face similar issues, it seems to be a more pressing theme for working women.
Leonie Ballagh CPA, senior accountant at Urbis and a mother of one, found that the traditional mother’s group didn’t give her what she needed.
“In mother’s groups they don’t talk at all about returning to work, in my experience anyway. It’s about being a mum, it’s about all those things you expect a mother’s group to be. But there’s no support in returning to work. The mothers in my group weren’t going back into a professional setting. And they didn’t understand what it was like to manage team members.”
Going back to work after parenthood was daunting for Ballagh who, after 10 years climbing the corporate ladder, was concerned people would perceive her differently.
“I guess there’s that fear that people will treat you differently because they don’t think you have that same motivation level you had before or they don’t think your career is such a high priority as it was before. And it’s not that it’s not still a high priority, it’s just that you’ve got another priority that’s more important.”
“The problem is the world moves on when you’re at home with that child,” says The Alannah and Madeline Foundation CEO and mother-of-nine Judith Slocombe. “It’s really hard to keep up. The corporate politics have moved on, positions have moved on, the projects have moved on. So you do come in having lost those connections. It doesn’t mean you have fewer skills. But that catch-up period creates a lot of insecurity.
It is definitely beneficial having a network of people in the same situation.– Jane Kelly, Urbis
“There’s so much adjustment that you don’t feel like you’re back in your comfort zone. Because you’re not, you’re not in your old space at all.”
Though Ballagh’s concerns were unfounded – her company is highly supportive of returning parents – she was surprised to find additional support in a group of colleagues who invited her to join an unofficial mother’s group for Urbis’s working mums, an initiative started by an Urbis director to help parents share their experiences.
“It helped talking to other mums who had already gone through this whole experience – more than once in some cases – to put my perspectives right,” Ballagh says.
“It is definitely beneficial having a network of people in the same situation,” says Urbis Associate Director for Melbourne Planning and mother of two Jane Kelly. When Kelly returned to work after having her first child, now six, she found that support from her fellow working mothers helped.
“At that time there were only a couple of other working mothers in the office, and they provided some much appreciated advice to assist in the transition back into the workforce and part-time work, and balancing work and family life.”
Slocombe says that “women who go off and have children and take that time out – whether it be six weeks or a year – need to be prepared for the fact that they’ve got to give themselves enough time to catch up”.
The members of Urbis’s mother’s group peers agree with Kelly advising Ballagh, “Don’t try and have it all working for six months”.
“That was good advice,” Ballagh says.
Learning that not everything goes according to plan was probably one of the hardest lessons for career-woman-cum-mother Ballagh, a lesson also learned by Management by Design owner and mother of two Gordana Milosevska CPA. “I thought having a baby would be easy, and quite frankly I felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. I can cope with everything in my life, but this was really hard.
“Coming from leadership roles it was hard … I think it’s harder for women who have come from those types of roles to deal with a baby. We’re so used to people doing as we ask.” Milosevska was fortunate in that she had a strong family support network to help her adjust to motherhood.
According to the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women, 36 per cent of mothers return to the workforce before their child has turned one, and 54 per cent return by the time their child has turned two. Yet there is a deficit of support for these women – and it goes beyond support for returning career women.
Slocombe says, “I would really like women to support each other in their choices, because sometimes they don’t,” referring to women who, one way or another, judge their fellow mothers for their choice either to stay at home or re-enter the workforce.
Slocombe also suggests further reform. “There needs to be a fundamental look at tax and support structures, government support and the cost of childcare,” she says. “And then there needs to be a real look at policies and practices in workplaces that can support mums.”
Until such time, professional women are left to their own devices.
7 tips on juggling work and parenthood
Ballagh: Try not to put pressure on yourself to do more than what you can.
Milosevska: Plan. Think hard about how it’s going to work.
Slocombe: Carefully choose your workplace. If you’ve got a workplace that’s restrictive in what you can do, my advice would be to leave and go somewhere not so tough.
Kelly: Effectively manage your time. I typically map out the next week at the end of my work week.
Ballagh: Be patient. It’s hard when you had a plan, and you just thought babies fit into it somewhere, but they don’t.
Slocombe: Have clarity of purpose. Know what you want as a parent, in your career, and what you need in your personal life.
Kelly: Be open and honest with your employer about your preferred work arrangement.